Jodi Hills

So this is who I am – a writer that paints, a painter that writes…


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Joie de vivre.

Someone was assigned to pull down the 8′ black shades and the white screen at the front of the class. Another student was assigned to wheel in the projector. The rest of us squirmed in our seats with hearts beating like gerbils on a wheel. Movie day at Washington Elementary was like no other. Nearly two hours of no memorizing. No reciting. No confusion. No pressure.

The sound of the wheel clicking into place. Then the film snaking into position. The projection light coming cn. It was almost unbearable. We had watched the same film for years. First grade. Second grade. Again in 3rd, 4th and 5th. It didn’t matter. It was the memory of pure and uncomplicated joy.

It has been decades since I sat at those desks. But I can feel it as though it were yesterday. Today, memories of my mother turn round and round on my heart’s movie reel. This joy is almost unbearable, but I know I will carry it with me, forever — for that’s what she was, pure and uncomplicated joy.


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Ensemble.

It was our first trip to New York together.  After my first show, I was getting my portrait taken by a photographer for a national magazine. This was a lot of first for one trip.

We were both high with excitement. It was all makeup and wardrobe changes and flashing lights. Neither my mom, nor I, could quit smiling. Near the end of the shoot, they even took our picture together. And we both ended up in the magazine!

They had a limo take us to the airport. Another first. I can’t imagine, any previous passengers  – even those laced with champagne – could have giggled more than we did. We weren’t even considering airport regulations. I arrived in my last outfit change, which was a red leather jacket (to go with my Slap on a little LIpstick book). It was a very light leather that snapped up the front – technically, it was just a top. And that’s how I wore it. But when we reached the security point, they immediately said I had to take off my “jacket.” But I’m not wearing anything else, I said. Pleaded. And even though I had the laws of fashion on my side, they had the actual law law, so I took it off. Put it in the bin, and walked through with only my bra on. Of course there was a large group of people traveling back to Wisconsin behind me, who found it all quite amusing. I put my “top” back on as quickly as possible. My mom walked through behind me. She looked at me in utter amazement and said, “They would have had to tase me.”

Ensemble was a verb for mother. She loved fashion. When she would come to my apartment in Minneapolis for the weekend, (which could often be just a day and a half) she would have a suitcase, hanging clothes, two or three bags for make-up and moisturizers, a bag for shoes, one for jewelry, and often an extra coat or two, just in case. It seemed exactly right to me. These weren’t “material things.” Those bags held confidence, and joy! They held dreams come true. And dreams to come! 

As I am packing my carry-on to come to Minnesota, for a mere few days, I am wondering how to explain all of this to the security guards, as they rifle through my make-up and jewelry. But I will stand tall, knowing everything I really need is already packed in my heart.

But if you see me, the next day off the plane, please forgive my appearance. For there will be jetlag, and it’s quite possible, I will have been tased.


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Barely more than air.

It was common knowledge on the playground of Washington Elementary that if you skinned your knee, the immediate solution was just to blow on it. Because the monkey bars, swings, jungle gym, all rested on paved ground, this was an everyday occurance. And it was your truest friends who, when the scraped area was just out of reach, took over the duties, and eased the sting with this balm, barely more than air. 

I want you to know that I felt that yesterday, as you commented again and again with words of love for my mother.. Each letter, each phrase, relieving the pain of my skinned heart. 

We made it through recess together. Limping, hand in sweaty hand, we went back to the classroom with the love and knowledge gained on this sometimes battlefield. It’s comforting to know we can still do that for each other. Thank you, my friends, from the bottom, top and middle, of my ever-healing heart.


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Possibility

I was thrilled when I heard that all the girls had to take shop class — thrilled, that is, until I learned that it wasn’t going to be at the mall, but in the lower level of Central Junior High, with the saws, sanders, wood, and the three-fingered instructor.

Looking back, it was quite progressive. At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky we were. Everyone took everything – no question of gender. We had the funds, not only for these courses — woods, plastics, metals, drafting, cooking, sewing — but we also had band and choir and gym and swimming! Exposing us to a world beyond the brick walls. (Even beyond the mall.)

I suppose it was the smell that I first fell in love with – the smell of cut wood. It had the air of possibility. Week by week our projects progressed. “It has to be flush,” he said. So we sanded again and again. We built small bookshelves. Carrying it home on the bus, was one of my proudest days. It trophies in my hands and lap. The younger kids brushed their hands along the wood, to see if what I was telling them was true, that we had spun the wood like magic into these silky smooth creations. I have been in love with wood ever since.

Yesterday, a friend of ours drove two hours from the mountains to our house. He handed me a stack of wood. Freshly cut. Freshly sanded. Spun magic. I placed them on the work bench, like the trophies they were. I asked Dominique later in the evening, what else was he doing in town. Nothing. He had driven four hours just to give me this gift. My seemingly full heart swelled a bit more. I brushed my hands along the wood to see if what he was telling me was true. It was. We have the magic of such a friend. On a day, perhaps when I needed it most, I was given the air of possibility.


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This understanding.

Within the poems I wrote things like — “as I go through life…” — I was eleven years old.

I found a journal that my friend Cindy gave to me for my birthday. It is filled with my poems — words that I was confident enough to feel and to write, in ink. I guess I knew right from the start that they would save me. These words. There is a Chinese proverb, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand.” I suppose that’s all I’ve ever wanted – this understanding.

I need some of that understanding, every day. I suppose we all do. So I continue to write. And I don’t mean that it all ends up making perfect sense. When does that ever happen? But the understanding of a heart, a heart that sees, smiles with lips curled inside, nodding in the agreement that “you are going to be ok,” –calming to this beat of understanding.

She had the assuredness to write on the inside cover, in red ink, “friends always, Cindy.” She was right. We still are. Always will be.

Knowing my mother for those first 11 years, I wrote:

“She’s like the sun,
going in and out,
waiting for someone to notice her.
I’m so glad that I did.”

I type the words. They are all still true. And my heart nods in agreement — We’re all going to be ok.


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I called it.

We were always running. To the neighbors. On the field. In the sand toward the water. To our bicycles – to go even faster. Racing to the joy of it all. But there was something so special about riding in the front seat of the car, we not only raced toward it, we “called it.” And for some reason, we abided by these rules – even if you didn’t get to the car first, if you, in fact, had shouted out “I call the front seat,” then it was yours. The power we held.

I was thinking, wishing actually, praying even, for some of that power. Some of that joy. “If only I was able to reserve it – call it out to be mine.” And as I was thinking, my mind racing in bumper tennis shoes, it occurred to me, maybe I still do. What if I decided today was going to be filled with that speed, that speed that only comes from pure joy? That feeling that blows your hair back and your heart forward. That’s what I want. What if I just “called it?” 

We raced through the streets of Chicago. New York. My mom and I. It never occurred to me that she was aging. We ran. Arms draped with packages. From the Magnificent Mile (and it was true to its name!) to the city that never sleeps. We ran. Nothing but joy. And the thing is, in my heart, it’s still happening. My heart races in the memory of it all. 

Today might not be easy, but there will be joy, lifting my feet, lifting my heart. I believe in it. I have to. I already called it!


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Shine.

There are many reasons that I write each day. A writer writes. 

There are many reasons that I paint each day. A painter paints. 

But I must admit, I had this idea, that maybe, just maybe, if I wrote the words down, they would form a string, a line, a ladder, and connect to my mother. I thought if I finished the painting, finished the book, they would be the lifeboats to carry her. A believer has to believe.

And for 586 days it has been true. But maybe the real truth is that it has saved me. I suppose that’s love. It must be love. And perhaps the only real reason to do anything.

Years ago, I wrote about my mother – 

“You do the impossible every day. You warm people with your own brilliant light, and make them believe it is they who really shine.”

I write. I paint. I believe. I love. All because of her brilliant light. I will do it today, and for the rest of my life. And I will be saved.


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Sable.

It is more fragile, for sure, but oh the feeling, as you glide the sable brush across the paper. The paint seems to love the ride. So willing to cling to the brush in your hand and then release itself ever so gently onto the paper. 

I suppose any woodworker will have the same story of a favorite tool. A farmer. A baker. A mechanic. A musician. Each finding the best way to gather and release the vulnerability, the creativity of the attempt. In any creation, there needs to be this combination. And never is that more clear, than with the heart — perhaps our finest, yet most fragile tool. 

Since I was five years old, I put crayon to paper. I would present the crude, but purely honest creations to my mother, and she would clutch her imaginary pearls. One movement of her hand to heart. One movement of my hand to paper. Nothing was easier than this love. So I showed her. Again and again. 

I painted with my new sable brush yesterday. I bought in Minneapolis. I painted with my trusting heart. My mother gave me that so many years ago!


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On frozen ponds.

There were three of us on winter break. We decided to go skating together. My cousin Kalee was very good. My cousin Tina had never tried it. I was somewhere in between. We went to the nearest frozen lake (there were many to choose from). Kalee glided with ease and grace across the ice like Snoopy in a Charles Schulz special. I Peppermint Pattied my way along, and Tina did her best Charlie Brown, trying to get her backside off the frozen pond.

We went back to my grandma’s house. Kalee was completely dry. Tina and I changed back into warmer clothes. How was it? my grandma asked. Great, said Kalee. It was ok, I said. Tina burst into tears. “We’re all having different experiences,” my grandma said. She smiled – offered to make us rootbeer floats. We declined. She was the only one that really liked them. But we loved her. And with all of our different and peculiar ways, she loved us – all!

I read it in a book this week – “We are all having different experiences.” And though I’ve heard it before, oh how it rings true. For families. For friends. For the planet. I used to think if people weren’t having the same feelings, then someone was wrong. Was it them? Was it me? It takes a long time to learn that many things can be true. You just have to find your own truth. The version you can stand on, upright, live with.

We, as humans, are skating and falling and getting up again. All at different times. In our own different ways. And why not, there are “so many lakes to choose from.” If you can be gracious when you glide, when you fall, and all the places in between, then there will always be love. Love for us all.


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The playground

I suppose I’ve always been a dreamer. But I’m not sure it would be possible to live, (not just survive, I mean really live) any other way.

On the playground at Washington Elementary, it was something of a right of passage to display your bruises – your badges of courage. We’d line up under the monkey bars, and point out our battles survived. “This is when my foot got caught in the jump rope and I landed on my knees.” “Oh, yeah, but look, here’s when we were playing tug of war and the rope got caught under my arm.” “Look at my eye – the football hit me right in the face – the FACE!”  Never broken, but bruised daily. Because we were participating – joyfully!

I’d like to think the same of my heart. I continue to send it off to battle. It knows, from past experience — this daily beating on life’s playground — that it is going to be bruised. Love will do that. Every time. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Maybe my biggest dream is that we could all do this — love this big! Risk it all, believing  in the beautiful resilience of the heart. 

My heart will not be broken – it is not a block of ice. It is a juicy pear, bruised for sure, but forever delicious! So I run to the playground again and again, proud of what I’ve been through, what you’ve been through! We’re here. Today. Let’s play!